Train station staff in Melbourne have won a battle to protect their jobs, pushing back a joint plan by Metro Trains and the state Labor government. Staff had been campaigning against the threatened closure of station control desks for weeks, when Metro and the government suddenly backed down at the end of February.
Metro wrote to staff “Public Transport Victoria (PTV) has advised it will not be proceeding”, while Public Transport Minister Jacinta Allan wrote to the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), “I am advised that PTV has not approved the proposed changes”. While the government attempted to hide behind PTV, the truth is that the plan was a Labor and Metro collaboration all along.
This was confirmed when a Metro strategy document came to light. The document stated that closing control desks on the South Morang and Hurstbridge lines by December 2018 was in Metro’s “base offer” to the state government during new contract negotiations last year.
Labor and Metro’s plan sought to reduce staff responsibilities, immediately cut a number of full time jobs, cut more jobs “over time through attrition”, and reduce working hours for part timers. Metro would later remove control desks from all stations, predicting that this could save them $523,000 per year!
In January RTBU officials initiated a dispute on the grounds that Metro had failed to properly consult. Metro were more than happy to meet with the RTBU on this basis knowing that if they could draw the union into a sham consultation process they could eventually wear the workforce down.
The workers themselves were not interested in consulting about losing their jobs. There was a strong mood to defend all jobs and station staff instead pushed for an active union campaign. A series of weekly actions at various stations helped boost staff confidence while open action committee meetings allowed union members to debate and hone their strategy.
Union members quickly realised that their campaign, while still limited, had forced Metro to reassess their plans. In meetings with the RTBU, Metro repeatedly conceded that the proposal could be abandoned.
Undoubtedly, Metro knew that staff were discussing the possible use of stop-work tactics and were rattled. In order to deflect staff anger, Metro said the ball lay in Jacinta Allan’s court. Spurred on, union activists used action committee meetings to push for a protest at Jacinta Allan’s office.
The Labor state government is weak, clinging to power by just a single seat. With an election scheduled for November they desperately want to avoid losing any more ground. Heading towards the election Labor want to be able to claim that their public transport projects are “creating thousands and thousands of Victorian jobs”.
The last thing they wanted was public transport workers highlighting the government’s job-cutting deal with Metro. The mere threat of a protest outside Jacinta Allan’s office was enough in these circumstances to force a back down.
Throughout this dispute, Metro managers told staff that the plan could not be stopped. Even within the RTBU some officials suggested the best that could be achieved was to string the plan out for as long as possible in the hope of delaying it. These people all underestimated the determination of the workers.
Union members now have an example that can be held up to reject defeatist attitudes. It is now clear to all that Metro can be beaten, we do not have to just accept their attempts to profiteer at our expense.
While Metro has been forced back on this occasion, we should expect that they will try to reduce their wages bill in other ways. RTBU members should use this dispute as a model for future battles where action committees, dominated by rank and file members, are used to develop effective strategies.
In the future the threat of protests may not be enough and we will have to look seriously at following through with stop-work action, even if it is at odds with the law.
While pushing back every attempt to undermine our wages and conditions, union members should also continue to fight for a publicly owned and operated transport system. Public transport should be treated as an essential service rather than a profit-making enterprise. This dispute highlighted once again that Labor are no allies in this fight. We need a new workers party that genuinely stands up for workers and public transport users.
By a Metro worker